Cover: Clara at the Door with a Revolver: The Scandalous Black Suspect, the Exemplary White Son, and the Murder That Shocked Toronto, by Carolyn Whitzman. Illustration: The silhouette of a person wearing a fedora, leaning out from behind a door holding a revolver.
336 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2
25 illus., 11 b&w photos, 3 maps,
Paperback
Release Date:01 Feb 2023
ISBN:9780774890618
PDF
Release Date:01 Feb 2023
ISBN:9780774890625
EPUB
Release Date:01 Feb 2023
ISBN:9780774890632
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Clara at the Door with a Revolver

The Scandalous Black Suspect, the Exemplary White Son, and the Murder That Shocked Toronto

UBC Press, On Point Press

In the autumnal darkness of October 6, 1894, an unseen figure slipped through the streets of Parkdale, rang the doorbell at the home of a well-to-do Toronto family, and shot Frank Westwood in his doorway, murdering him in cold blood.

Six weeks later, the spotlight shone on the enigmatic Clara Ford, a Black tailor and single mother known for her impeccable work ethic and resolute personality – and for wearing men’s attire. A former neighbour of the Westwoods, Clara was arrested and confessed to the murder. But as the details of her arrest and her complex connection to the Westwood family emerged, she recanted, testifying that she was coerced by police into a false confession. Clara was the first woman – and only the second person – to testify on her own behalf in a Canadian trial.

Set in three acts, this story illuminates not only the riveting case itself but also the societal attitudes, gender and race hypocrisy, and the politics of media power in the growing city of Toronto. Carolyn Whitzman tells the compelling story of a courageous Black woman living in nineteenth-century Toronto and paints a portrait of a city and a society that have not changed enough in 125 years.

This book is for readers of women’s history, Black history, queer history, Canadian history, Toronto history, and true crime.

Awards

  • 2023, Shortlisted - Toronto Book Award
Whitzman does a deep dive to put this three-act tragedy in historical context…the story has been told many times, but not in quite the same way. Pat St. Germain, Post Media
Whitzman’s book...brings to light a unique case in the annals of Canadian criminal history involving one Clara Ford. Emily Donaldson, Globe and Mail
Whitzman … brings to life a spectacular 1894 Toronto true crime case. Nathalie Atkinson, Zoomer Magazine
The city’s seven newspapers in the 1890s were in competition for readership and often exaggerated or even fabricated facts to sell papers – but Whitzman tells the story in shades of grey. Cassandra Drudi, Quill & Quire
A fascinating exploration of a part of Toronto’s history that deserves a new telling. Deborah Dundas, The Toronto Star
Carolyn Whitzman’s Clara at the Door with a Revolver is a page-turner whodunit, focusing on the fascinating and intriguing bio of the alleged murderess, a cross-dressing, maybe-bisexual, Black (mixed-race) dancer and seamstress, who backed up her male wardrobe with an ever-ready, phallic-symbol pistol. Whitzman is objective in her research and scrupulous in her analyses (even in speculating about motives, character, relationships, and psychologies). Yet she is also righteously sympathetic to the travails of Clara Ford, a single, Black, working-class mom, subjected to all the racist, sexist, and elitist hypocrisy of Toronto the Good, a Victorian-era bastion of white supremacy, British imperialism, and top-hatted patriarchy. Her tone always casual, her vocabulary always everyday (with her notes and references never allowed to interrupt the narrative), Whitzman reveals the ensconced corruption of the WASP establishment prepared to hang a Black woman for her ‘murder’ of a rich Caucasian, even if he may have raped either herself or her daughter, and/or regardless of whether Clara Ford was actually innocent. That Ford’s self-defense testimony may have saved her from the noose also recovers for the annals of ‘Black excellence’ an ‘average’ woman whose eloquence and poise overcame the empowered prejudices of journalists, judges, and cops. George Elliott Clarke, professor of African-Canadian Literature, University of Toronto, and author of J’Accuse…! (Poem Versus Silence)
With an impressive cast of characters and the feel of a detective story, I loved Clara at the Door with a Revolver. This is social history at its best. Afua Cooper, author of The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal
This book matters because it arrives at a critical juncture in our history: two years after the summer of racial reckoning in North America and in the midst of an assault on critical race theory and histories that is evident in the United States and, perhaps, Canada. But more importantly, it matters because it is the best account of the Clara Ford story that has been published to date. Barrington Walker, professor, History, Wilfrid Laurier University

Carolyn Whitzman is a writer and researcher who lives in Ottawa. She is the author of Suburb, Slum, Urban Village: Transformations in Parkdale, Toronto 1875–2000. She was living in Parkdale when she stumbled upon Clara Ford’s story and has remained fascinated with it for more than two decades.

Cast of Characters

Overture: Cakewalk

Act 1: The Parkdale Mystery

1 The Murderee

2 There’s a Girl in It

3 Amateur Detectives

4 The Bad Hat

Act 2: Clara’s Turn

5 From Whence She Came

6 Go West, Young Man

7 Bad Fences

8 Eight Hours

9 Monster

Act 3: A Great Trial – and Its Aftermath

10 The Forces of the Law

11 Witness for the Prosecution

12 The Performance of Her Life

13 Twelve Hungry Men

14 What Clara Did Next

Finale: Clara, Armed

Notes and Further Reading; Index

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